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Renshaw v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

September 21, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on Richard R. Renshaw, III's (Renshaw) appeal regarding the denial of disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under the Social Security Act. Renshaw alleged disability due to learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, memory problems, and hepatitis. (Tr. 321.) The Court has jurisdiction over the subject matter of this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties have consented to the exercise of authority by the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). [Doc. 10.] The Court has reviewed the parties' briefs and the entire administrative record, including the transcript and medical evidence. The court held a hearing by telephone on August 24, 2017. Based on the following, the Court will reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand this action for further proceedings.

         I. Issues for Review

         Renshaw presents three issues for review. First, he asserts that his due process rights were violated, because he was denied the right to testify before the ALJ who wrote the final decision in his case and the error was prejudicial. Second, he contends that the hypothetical question to the vocational expert and the residual functional capacity findings were unclear and internally inconsistent. Finally, he asserts that the ALJ relied upon a vocational expert opinion that lacked a basis and conflicted with the Dictionary of Titles (DOT)[1] without resolution. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and should be affirmed.

         II. Background

         On August 24, 2012, Renshaw applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income, alleging disability since December 31, 2010. (Tr. 293-305.) The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Renshaw's claim and he filed a timely request for hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 110-36, 139-40.) The SSA granted Renshaw's request for review and an administrative hearing was held on June 18, 2014 before ALJ Joseph Warzycki. (Tr. 58-109.) Medical experts Jerry Seligman and Dr. Karyn Perry, vocational expert Matthew Lampley, Renshaw's case manager Joseph Piskulic, and Renshaw testified at the June 18, 2014 hearing[2]. A second administrative hearing was held before ALJ Warzycki on December 17, 2014. (Tr. 45-57.) During the December 2014 hearing, medical expert Dr. Lee Besen and Renshaw testified. (Tr. 45-57.) Dr. Besen testified that Renshaw's psychological issues would be “further reviewed by a psychiatrist/psychologist.” (Tr. 51.) At the conclusion of all of the testimony, ALJ Warzycki stated, “Well unfortunately, they gave me an internal med instead of a psychologist. So we will lay this over for a psychologist.” (Tr. 56.)

         Between the second administrative hearing and the Commissioner's decision on this case, ALJ Warzycki retired and the case was transferred to ALJ Lisa Leslie. (Tr. 388.) On May 18, 2015, ALJ Leslie found Renshaw not disabled as defined in the Society Security Act. (Tr. 25-39.) Renshaw was not informed that a third hearing would not be held or that a different ALJ had been assigned to write the decision in his case. The ALJ's opinion also does not mention that another ALJ received testimony in the case. Renshaw requested a review of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council. (Tr. 14, 16.) Renshaw's counsel also submitted a brief in support of the request for review asserting the same claims that are before this court. (Tr. 388-90.)

         On July 19, 2016, the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied Renshaw's request for review. (Tr. 1-6.) The decision of the ALJ thus stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000); Lott v. Colvin, 772 F.3d 546, 548 (8th Cir. 2014). Renshaw filed this appeal on September 16, 2016. [Doc 1.] The Commissioner filed an Answer and the certified Administrative Transcript on November 22, 2016. [Doc. 13, 14.] Renshaw filed a Brief in Support of the Complaint on January 26, 2017[3]. [Doc. 27] The Commissioner filed a Brief in Support of the Answer on April 21, 2017. [Doc. 23.] Renshaw then filed a Reply Brief on May 5, 2017. [Doc. 24.]

         III. Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act defines disability as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected to last for continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)1)A), 423(d)1)(A).

         The SSA uses a five-step analysis to determine whether a claimant seeking disability benefits is in fact disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(1), 416.920(a)(1). First, the claimant must not be engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). Second, the claimant must establish that he or she has an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits his or her ability to perform basic work activities and meets the durational requirements of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Third, the claimant must establish that his or her impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in the appendix of the applicable regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment, the SSA determines the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

         Fourth, the claimant must establish that the impairment prevents him or her from doing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant meets this burden, the analysis proceeds to step five. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish the claimant maintains the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Singh v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 448, 451 (8th Cir. 2000). If the claimant satisfied all of the criteria under the five-step evaluation, the ALJ will find the claimant to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         The standard of review is narrow. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001). This Court reviews the decision of the ALJ to determine whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find adequate support for the ALJ's decision. Smith v. Shalala, 31 F.3d 715, 717 (8th Cir. 1994). The court determines whether evidence is substantial by considering evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it. Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 906 (8th Cir. 2006). The Court may not reverse just because substantial evidence exists that would support a contrary outcome or because the Court would have decided the case differently. Id. If, after reviewing the record as a whole, the Court finds it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's finding, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed. Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 726 (8th Cir. 2004).

         To determine whether the ALJ's final decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court is required to review the administrative record as a whole to consider:

(1) The findings of credibility made by the ALJ;
(2) The education, background, work history, and age of the ...

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